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October 25, 2014 | 1st Cheshvan 5775

Sesame

Galilee Diary #356, September 23, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

If any one take money from a merchant, and give the merchant a field tillable for grain or sesame and order him to plant grain or sesame in the field, and to harvest the crop; if the cultivator plant grain or sesame in the field, at the harvest the grain or sesame that is in the field shall belong to the owner of the field and he shall pay from the crop as rent…

Hammurabi’s Code, Law 49

From Hammurabi’s code, which dates from around 1700 BCE in Mesopotamia, we learn that sesame was already an important crop in the middle east long before we came on the scene. Sesame (sumsum in Hebrew) apparently comes from the ancient Akkadian samsammu. Sesame and its products are a major staple in the diet of Israel, and so I always found it curious that I had never seen it growing here. During the summer one drives by extensive fields of sunflowers, bowing their heads in the sun as they become heavy with tightly packed seeds, to be harvested for Shabbat snacking and for the cooking oil pressed from them. But where are the sesame plantations? It turns out that while the climate is satisfactory for sesame plants, they are not widely grown here, apparently due to the labor intensive nature of the harvest: sesame seeds are produced in pods, which burst when they are ripe, scattering the seeds (“Open, Sesame!”). And the pods on any given plant do not all ripen at the same time. Thus, mechanical harvesting is not practical, as workers must ply the fields, harvesting the pods as they ripen but before they burst. Sesame is therefore a commercial crop primarily in equatorial lands with plentiful, cheap farm labor – e.g., India, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala. The vast majority of Israel’s sesame seeds are imported from Ethiopia - $22 million worth a year.

Interestingly, sesame oil is not much used in Israel. Aside from the direct uses of the seeds, in candies and pastries and breads, the main use of sesame is as techina, which is made by simply grinding the seeds to a paste. There are a number of techina (from the Hebrew root tachan, meaning “grind”) mills around the country, both in the Jewish and Arab communities. Each of course swears by its superior product, either because of the selection of the raw material, or the nature of the grindstones, or the control of the conditions of the process. In any case, raw techina is readily available in every grocery store, and many people buy it and prepare their own dips and sauces for eating and cooking. The techina used as a sauce on falafel and dolloped on chumus is made by stirring water into the paste until a creamy emulsion results, and adding various seasonings like garlic, lemon, salt (and various secret ingredients). Now of course one can purchase a whole variety of prepared, blended techina sauces and dips in the salad cooler of the supermarket, so many people never have to deal with raw techina. “Green techina” has become quite popular in the past few years – a techina sauce prepared as above, with a lot chopped parsley blended in – and there are several competing brands.

Techina is of course a mainstay of the Israeli diet – not only for dipping and seasoning, but as an ingredient in various common salads (e.g., eggplant), and in cooking. It is very healthy, high in protein and various minerals.

We tend to think of techina in combination with garlic, salt, and spices, but one of its most popular incarnations is another middle eastern delicacy – halvah. Halvah is made by mixing raw techina with sugar syrup, and heating and stirring it until the right consistency is reached. While I don’t know anyone who makes halvah at home, it is easy to make a halvah-like spread by simply mixing raw techina and honey. There are also recipes for cookies with a halvah taste provided by the presence of raw techina. When I spent a semester of high school in Israel, my adoptive family often sent me to school with halvah-and-cream-cheese sandwiches, which, after a few hours in a warm backpack, took on a sweet, gooey consistency that at the time I couldn’t stand, but have since learned to enjoy. Probably at least as healthy as peanut butter and jelly – and so much more authentic.

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